Cragganmore is part of Diageo’s Classic Malts series. This is where they select one distillery from each geographical region of Scotland (from among their stable of distilleries) to showcase the “classic” malt style of that region. Cragganmore specifically represents the Speyside region in this case – which is traditionally thought of as relatively gentle malts.
As I explain on my Single Malt vs. Blends page, this historical classification based on geography simply isn’t very relevant any more (if it ever was). The traditional production methods used in different regions can (and often are) adjusted today to suit a range of modern styles. This allows each distillery to offer a wide range of diverse products, to appeal to different tastes.
At any rate, at least it helps save some of the output of these distilleries from being poured (literally) into Diageo’s behemoth blending operation. Cragganmore is believed to be one of the principal malts in Johnnie Walker Black Label, as well as Old Parr.
The distillery was opened by a former manager of both Macallan and Glenlivet, John Smith, in 1869. It draws water from Craggan Burn, off the River Spey. Their main claim to fame is the distinctive flat-topped design of their spirit stills (as opposed to the more common elongated necks of their competitors). This is supposed to produce a particularly “sweet and complex” base spirit, according to Diageo.
This official bottling of the distillery’s 12 year old malt is reported to come exclusively from refill bourbon casks. I’ve also seen some reports online that some portion of it comes from sherried casks, but I find that hard to believe after sampling (see tasting notes below).
Bottled at the industry minimum standard of 40% ABV. I picked up a 200 mL bottle for ~$25 CAD when passing through Norway last year. Currently $67 CAD for a 750 mL bottle at the LCBO.
Here is how it compares to other relatively gentle malts in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, of similar price:
AnCnoc 12yo: 8.62 ± 0.32 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Arran Malt 10yo: 8.52 ± 0.30 on 22 reviews ($$$)
BenRiach 10yo: 8.56 ± 0.16 on 12 reviews ($$$)
BenRiach 12yo: 8.43 ± 0.25 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.26 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.08 ± 0.47 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Cragganmore 12yo: 8.35 ± 0.29 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Cragganmore 25yo: 9.03 ± 0.06 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Cragganmore NAS (Special Release 2016): 8.79 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Craigellachie 13yo: 8.41 ± 0.56 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Dalwhinnie 15yo: 8.65 ± 0.36 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Grant 10yo: 8.27 ± 0.46 on 9 reviews ($$)
Glen Grant 12yo: 8.33 ± 0.52 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Glen Moray 12yo: 8.05 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$)
Glencadam 10yo: 8.46 ± 0.43 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.10 ± 0.22 on 26 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.06 ± 0.30 on 22 reviews ($$$)
Glenmorangie 10yo: 8.48 ± 0.43 on 25 reviews ($$$)
Kilkerran 12yo: 8.88 ± 0.28 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Tamdhu 10yo: 8.30 ± 0.58 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Where is what I find in the glass:
Nose: I get a strong apple juice note to start, then light honey, vanilla and some caramel. Also some canned pear. Vaguely floral, I get heather and hay most noticeably. A bit malty, with a touch of Graham cracker. Light smoke, with a bit of vegetal funk (that last one is surprising for a classic Speyside). A nice combo overall. Reminds me a bit of Oban 14 year old.
Palate: Cream and honey to start, then caramel and vanilla notes. Apple and pear again. Malty, with Graham cracker notes. Not as much smoke as the nose suggested, but there is a little something here tingling the taste buds. A vague nuttiness. Some oak spice. Would be nice at higher strength, but actually quite drinkable as is. Some bitterness builds at end of the palate (bitter almonds).
Finish: Medium length (and longer than most gentle whiskies). Smoke residue lingers, along with some bitter almonds. Peppery too now, wasn’t getting that before. A bit of fruit returns at the end. Nice, easy finish.
This is quite sippable. I’m not really getting any sherry notes here, but it is a well executed malt for the style. Personally, I would put this at least on par with An Cnoc 12. It is not at the level of Oban 14 or Dalwhinnie 15, but the touch of smoke here really helps add character (and bring up its score).
In my view, Cragganmore 12 Year Old is a good one to try soon after starting out with single malts, once you have sampled the ubiquitous Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12. Like with the Oban and Dalwhinnie, this is a whisky where I think you will appreciate the extra character it brings over the common entry-level expressions.
The highest scores I’ve seen for this malt comes from Nathan the Scotch Noob and Andre of Quebec Whisky. Patrick of Quebec Whisky and Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate are also generally positive. More typical (and more in keeping with my own assessment) are Ralfy and Serge of Whisky Fun. Relatively low scores come from Jason of In Search of Elegance, Jim Murray, Richard of Whiskey Reviewer, and Thomas of Whisky Saga.